Not that everything in Thoroughbred racing has to keep coming back to American Pharoah these days, but when Nyquist came up short in the Saturday slop that was the 141st Preakness Stakes on Saturday, the first thought went back to American Pharoah.
Winning the Triple Crown is hard, man. If it were easy, we’d have one every year. Thirty-seven long years passed between the time Affirmed held off Alydar three straight times back in 1978 and when American Pharoah finally hit the triple to end the drought in 2015. Turns out, we were crazy to think that another possible superhorse, i.e. Nyquist, would come along so soon to repeat the feat just one year A.P., after Pharoah. You know us. We never learn.
“They’re not machines,” said Doug O’Neill, Nyquist’s trainer, standing in the middle of the track, in the mud, just moments after his star had finished third, obviously disappointed, trying his best to put a brave face on an unfavorable situation.
Give all the credit to Exaggerator, the Preakness winner, a horse for the elements, part equine and apparently part motorboat, who proved, like in the Santa Anita Derby last month, he knows how to turn it on when the track is off.
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“You can’t deny what what is happening here,” his trainer Keith Desormeaux said afterward. “He gets over this track like a duck to water.”
And was Saturday at Pimlico Race Course ever a day for ducks. Truth be told, it was a day parts weird, wet and tragic, starting with the very first race when 9-year-old gelding Homeboykris crossed the finish line first, posed for the snapshot in the winner’s circle, then collapsed and died (presumably of a heart attack) on the way back to the barn.
They’re not machines.
Nyquist trainer Doug O’Neill
Three races later, a 4-year-old filly named Pramedya broke down and was euthanized on the track. And was that not awful enough, turns out Pramedya was owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson of Lael Stables, who also owned Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby champion who suffered one of the most famous breakdowns in the history of the sport 10 years ago in the Preakness. It was an eerie and totally unnecessary reminder.
Then, out of nowhere, early in the afternoon came a head-scratching jolt when the Preakness odds boards suddenly showed Stradivari, a promising but lightly-raced (three career starts; none of them stakes races) member of Todd Pletcher’s barn, with odds of 1-2 after being 8-1 in the morning line.
Seriously? Stradivari? How did that happen? Turns out $80,000 is how that happens, that being the hefty sum an overly confident bettor laid down on Stradivari down the road at Laurel. A couple of hours before post time, Stradivari’s odds had rightly returned to 8-1. (He finished fourth.)
In the meantime, there was drizzle and sporadic showers, which kept the track sloppy and the infield party pack drenched, though that didn’t stop it from moving and swaying to the various musical acts performing live. It was sort of a Woodstock with Fetty Wap.
By the time the 6:45 p.m. Preakness post time rolled around, the rain — not heavy but certainly steady — had returned. On Friday, the laid-back O’Neill swore up and down the gloomy weather forecast of a sloppy track would not harsh his mellow. He didn’t see Nyquist wilting on a wet track, he said. He saw the Triple Crown train splashing on to the Big Apple and the Belmont Stakes.
“Being eight-for-eight, I was thinking this horse is never going to lose,” admitted O’Neill after the race. “They all lose at one time or another, but we’ll be OK.”
You know who didn’t lose? American Pharoah didn’t lose, not on the Triple Crown trail, anyway. He checked all three of the appropriate boxes — winning the Preakness in the aftermath of a pop-up storm, it should be noted — to earn his place in history at a time when some said it couldn’t be done, not anymore.
The way Nyquist had won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year and the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby this year, the way he had won all seven of his previous races, you thought the juvenile champion could join him in the record books; but that wasn’t to be, and really, we shouldn’t have been surprised.
Winning the Triple Crown is hard, man.